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  • Writer's pictureJulie Simon

Basketball and College Admissions—It’s All Madness


players on a basketball court during March Madness

The weekend was exciting as our daughters participated in March Madness Mania, carefully choosing their brackets based on school colors and mascots. As I anticipate the tournament ahead, I can’t help thinking about the similarities between March Madness and the college admissions process.  


So, how are they alike?


Rules Change – Each year, the NCAA announces new rules for the game, such as this year’s change to the block/charge call. These changes will inevitably affect the game and, ultimately, the outcome. Like in basketball, college admission rules change each year, too. Recently, four prominent universities have announced changes to their standardized testing policies. Brown, Dartmouth, and UT Austin have stated that for the 2024-25 application season, they will again require SAT or ACT scores for admission consideration. Yale announced they will be test-flexible. What does that mean? Great question! I visited their website to understand this new policy because colleges make up their own rules, and there’s rarely consistency. Essentially, Yale will require test scores, but students can choose which they want to submit from the following: ACT, SAT, Advanced Placement (AP), or International Baccalaureate (IB). 


Upsets Happen – Just like Fairleigh Dickinson (16) shocked the world by beating Purdue (1) in last year’s tournament, upsets also occur in the college admissions process. Last week, I received a text from a student that read, “How did I get into a school with a 6% acceptance rate (Northeastern) but waitlisted from a school with a 64% acceptance rate (American)?” The student was justified in her confusion. Her GPA and standardized test scores placed her solidly in the 75th percentile for admitted students last year at American, so why did she receive a waitlist offer? Unfortunately, we can't predict what happens behind closed doors on a college campus. Does a state school decide to enroll more nonresident students? Will a new chancellor want to increase enrollment among first-generation students? Does the board of governors want to grow their STEM program while reducing enrollment in the humanities? These are all examples of institutional priorities that can result in an unexpected decision. A student who does everything “right” can feel very disappointed when they don’t receive a positive decision. In a process that can feel very personal, there is a lot to an admission decision that isn’t about the student. This is one of the reasons we constantly stress the need to have a balanced college list with at least half of the schools in the target or likely category. We want students to have options even when upsets happen.   


Single Elimination – The NCAA tournament is single elimination, and college admissions can be too. I don’t mean that applications will be rejected due to frivolous errors like a misplaced comma in an essay or misspelling mom’s maiden name. Still, some errors can get you eliminated from consideration. Here are the ones I saw most often as an admissions officer:

  • Submitting the application after the deadline

  • Sending test scores after the deadline

  • Not submitting the required recommendation letters

These errors may not get your application rejected at all colleges, but as application volumes skyrocket at many of the country’s most popular universities, it can lead to your application not being considered or moved to another admission plan (for example, from early action to regular decision). To prevent an error of this type, I recommend that students have a system for tracking all their colleges, deadlines, and requirements. For the students we work with, we use software called Custom College Plan, so there’s no excuse for students to miss important dates or requirements.


As for my NCAA bracket, I remain optimistic. This is the year of the Big Ten – Illinois versus Purdue. Bet on it! 





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